So you want to unlock your iPhone?

Let’s all face it. AT&T sucks. They have the coverage of a budget carrier and charge you what Verizon does. Now that the 4G network is up, your old iPhone is getting left in the dust. And the idea that your iPhone is “locked” to AT&T makes you feel like a prisoner to a corrupt and exploitative corporation. So how do you get out?
In a word, don’t.
Now for the explanation. I’ve certainly read my share of rants and articles saying that locking cell phones is an evil practice and we should take our devices where we want. But there’s a reason they lock them. The new smartphones have all sorts of protocols which are designed to work only with the carrier that issues it. And once you switch your phone to another carrier, all sorts of little functions will need to be manually configured, or even be unavailable. It follows the classic IT rule of if you don’t control it, you can’t support it.
I’m telling you this out of experience. I tried switching my iPhone 4S from AT&T to T-Mobile, and now I’m switching back. It was a good run, but it turns out I can’t get visual voicemail (or any kind of voicemail alert) on my iPhone with T-Mobile. It would have been nice to know this before I made the switch, but nobody at AT&T or T-Mobile warned me of this. And that’s why I’m writing this post.
Overall though, it was a good try. I’m not regretting the switch, but I plan on sticking with AT&T until either my contract runs out or I just buy a new phone. And when I do, then I’ll go to another carrier.
Here’s the details of the switch:
To switch your phone to another carrier, you have to go to the other carrier first and get them to port your phone number over. You’ll need your old account number and some security detail. Once this is done, your phone will no longer function until you go back to your old carrier, get them to unlock it, which will allow you to install the new SIM. You should unlock your phone with a rep on the line to walk you though it, since it involves some rebooting steps.
Unlocking isn’t difficult, and AT&T does it pretty easily if you just call them and ask. Technically, they will not unlock your phone until you’ve paid your final bill including your contract termination penalty. But because I switched early into a bill cycle, it meant that I technically would be without a phone for nearly a month, since the bill cycle has to end before they can send you a final bill. But the guy just went ahead and unlocked it anyway, he didn’t even need to call a supervisor or anything.
The issues came after I switched. And I repeat, nobody warned me about these issues. They’re so concerned about the money they stand to win or lose that they forget about what matters to you.
First off, the T-Mobile network isn’t bad. Like I said, it’s about the same coverage as AT&T, with an added bonus. AT&T liked to pretend that I was getting 4G speeds, even though my iPhone 4s isn’t capable of it. So while it showed off the nifty 4G coverage bug, my phone was grinding at 3G or even 2G speeds, which maked it look like it just wasn’t working properly. T-Mobile is at least honest about what speed you’re actually connecting at.
But like I said, the visual voicemail is totally incompatible. This is the case for any carrier, my phone will also be incompatible with Verizon. Once T-Mobile is able to sell its version of the iPhone, they will make it available on those devices. Technically, I can download some third-party app that basically downloads and deletes any voicemails I receive and put them in a visual format for me. But the apps I saw were not only sketchy looking, I couldn’t get them to work. I mean I could try harder to make it work, but if I’m having this many errors at the outset I imagine it won’t be quite reliable if I do get it to work. And like I said, not only is visual voicemail not available, I get no warnings at all that I have a voicemail. If I turn my phone off or go in a dark zone (both which happen quite often) I’ll have to manually call my voicemail to find out if somebody sent me something.
I also was unable to send MMS messages (pictures via text), at least initially. Turns out that you need to manually configure MMS settings, and once I checked some blogs and played around with it I got it to work.
There’s other features that also become available once you unlock that are nice, like tethering. But overall, not worth the more crucial functions you lose. It’s better to find a company that offers the services you want, get the phone through them, and stick with them without a contract until you’re through with them.